Speaking History: Public Engagement at The UMMA

By Lucy Smith, Doctoral Student in History and Women’s Studies


Jean – Antoine Houdon, the Parian sculpture, traveled to Mount Vernon in 1785 to cast a bust of George Washington. The life like and iconic Houdon Bust remains to this day at Washington’s ancestral home and became a familiar sight throughout my 3 years at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Even though I moved across the country to undertake a History and Women’s Studies PhD program, I was greeted by a copy of the Houdon Bust on my first day as a Rackham Public Engagement Fellow at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). If there is one thing I learned working at Mount Vernon and studying early America, its George Washington is everywhere. My transition from a museum professional to a graduate student was difficult and walking through the museum doors to be greeted by the familiar stoic face of Washington reminded me of the opportunity to bring together my experience of museums with my growing expertise in early American history.

The UMMA Academic Programs office within the Education Department primarily works with University of Michigan faculty to bring their students for guided exploration of the collection and to create digital resources. As the Rackham Public Engagement Fellow, I engaged with both aspects of the office. Communicating academic ideas to the public is my passion and through this position I was able to hone my skills through both platforms. Within the digital collection on-line, I created a series of learning collections that featured art and objects thematically grouped designed for both K-12 and college educators to incorporate into their classroom. Creating these collections, especially the on 18th Century Copperplate Textile Production (surprisingly, really interesting), allowed me to test drive my research skills with material culture. While I appreciated the opportunity to study objects outside of my direct academic work, it was the interactions with faculty and students that got me excited.

I observed and worked closely with the education team to support class visits as the other major part of my duties at UMMA. Within UMMA’s main gallery a massive portrait of Sir Foster Cunliffe, as a British gentleman of leisure in hunting garb dominates the wall. I led the History of Genocide class to the painting while getting skeptical looks from the students and professor. As we started to unpack the image, students learned that Sir Foster Cunliffe’s family wealth came from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade based in Liverpool and his purposefully staged portrait attempted to deflect attention away from his means of wealth during an era of rising abolition sentiment. Through this portrait, our discussion turned to how history is constructed, who gets to construct it, and what is the responsibility of museums when displaying this portrait. Is the museum fulfilling Cunliffe’s goal by displaying it so prominently? Or is the museum undercutting Cunliffe through providing information in the label and engaging in these types of conservations? Does the image further reproduce a history of violence? Or does it enlighten and resist it? These types of questions – about the responsibility of depicting history of violence – pervade my work with the history of enslavement in early America. The opportunity to engage with students through art and museums dovetailed my past museum experiences with my current academic research exciting me to continue my studies and to understand its importance.

Every morning when I walked across the gallery, I passed the enslavers Sir Foster Cunliffe and George Washington. While my feelings towards Washington are complicated, there was a comfort in seeing him, a gentle reminder of the power of academic questions within the public sphere and that I was on the right track.  Sometimes within the academy it is easy to get insulated, to get so focused on your research, your committee, or your writing that you forget to take a step back. The Rackham Public Engagement Fellowship at the University of Michigan Museum of Art allowed me to take a step back. It allowed me to take a step back and tangibly see how my growing academic knowledge can strengthen my skills and commitment to public history.